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SurvivorBettse Folsom survived an F4 tornado that destroyed her Kansas City, Kan., home 10 years ago. (Staff photo)
Ten years have gone by since the destructive day of May 4, 2003.
Bettse Folsom can still remember it as if it was yesterday. An F4 tornado ripped through Kansas City, Kan., and nearby areas, destroying the home that her father had built. Destruction ranged in a wide area from DeSoto, Kan., through Wyandotte County, into Parkville, Mo., and Liberty, Mo. Two persons in Wyandotte County died from their injuries in this tornado.
The tornado was described as about 500 yards wide and was one of four tornadoes reported that day that hit hundreds of homes in the Kansas City area. It hit particularly hard near the Wyandotte County Lake entrance, as well as on 84th, and 79th and Cernech. There was also tornado damage in the Piper area.
Folsom and her mother, Helen Walsh Folsom, were at home Sunday afternoon when the tornado struck. They saw a dark cloud and took cover in the bathroom, she said. The next thing they knew, a tornado was tearing up their yard.
“It was gone in 15 seconds. We never thought that anything like that could happen,” Folsom, a former writer and photographer for the Wyandotte West, remembered.
“We were trying to hold the door shut and it collapsed all around us, on top of us, actually. I had to twist around and squeeze, climb up the shower,” she remembered. She knew she had to get out and get help for her mother, who was pinned beneath debris.
“Neighbors of ours had to turn off the gas, climb up the hill and come and lift the house off of Mom,” she said.
“The biggest miracle, besides our lives, was we only ended up with a few bruises and one cut on my back,” she said.
Thoughts were racing through her mind after the tornado hit, trying to make sense of why the sky was now blue but everything was collapsing around her, she said.
“And where was my laptop from work?” she said about her thoughts at the time. “It’s funny what goes through your mind at that moment.”
Losing her home, even though a new one was built, was the biggest change to her life caused by the tornado, she said.
“It was the only house I had ever known,” Folsom recalled. “It was actually built the year I was born.
“To rebuild the house and lose the other one was really devastating to me,” she said.
“I had worked on it, and put steel roofing on the house, over the top of it. We were always remodeling it and fixing it,” Folsom said.
She and her mother rebuilt on the same spot, a rocky terrain that did not allow a basement.
“We lost the house, the barn, two cars, but the Lord kept us alive,” Folsom said. “We weren’t scared, that was the funny part. We didn’t have time. I wasn’t scared until I saw Kansas Speedway had a video of the tornado from their security cameras. When I looked at that, that’s when I got scared. Also going out on 91st and Leavenworth Road and seeing how the other houses were just wiped clean.”
Their belongings were destroyed or scattered but there were some “funny little miracles,” she recalled. A few things were recovered. A book about Irish history belonging to her mother was found in a tree. The drawers of her mother’s file cabinets in her home office were all yanked out, except the one with the insurance papers, which were still there, she recalled.
A toy box with an eyeball that played an audio message, “Excuse me, let me out of here,” was found underneath a pile of debris on the hill, she said.
“My brother had bought my mom a globe, the Wizard of Oz globe that played ‘Ding, dong the witch is dead,’ of all things. That didn’t break, the globe was still intact,” Folsom remembered.
Another little miracle was that her mother had sent off the final draft of her second book, “Ah, Those Irish Colleens,” to the publisher only two weeks before the tornado hit, she said.
Survivors become more aware of storms, Folsom said. She was living in her aunt’s home shortly after the tornado, when another tornado alarm sounded. “I went running around the house making sure we had our purses,” she remembered. “You are more nervous. It seems like there are more tornadoes all around the country.”
Recent tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and Sedalia, Mo., brought back memories.
“People think you go through it, and it’s over. It’s not over for months or years, it takes a long time to get over it,” Folsom said. “You’re still dealing with things you lost. You’re looking for a picture and realize that’s ‘BT,’ before the tornado.”
Within two years of rebuilding, Folsom and her mother bought a safe shed, a concrete structure that they could take shelter in. “It’s the next best thing to having a safe basement,” she said.
“We’re in a new home that’s 10 years old now, built on the same spot,” Folsom said. “It’s a nice home, and we’re contented, and we love our home, but it will never mean as much as the other one did.”
Still, most important, she and her mother survived the tornado, and were able to rebuild in their favorite semi-rural neighborhood north of Leavenworth Road surrounded by flowers, rabbits and tulips.
“I guess my best advice is never underestimate the power of nature because man can conquer a lot of things but they can never fully conquer nature,” Folsom said.